Wednesday was a sad day for sports radio.
At 2 pm, Glenn Ordway opened WEEI’s drive time Big Show by confirming the day’s earlier reports that he was getting fired. The news was shocking to many, including myself. Ordway had been a radio fixture in Boston for thirty years, dating back to his days as the Celtics play-by-play announcer during Larry Bird’s dominant 1980s run, and had hosted the afternoon Big Show since 1996.
It was common knowledge that WEEI had lost its stranglehold on Boston sports talk radio since the emergence of a legitimate competitor in 98.5 the Sports Hub. Felger and Maz, the Sports Hub’s competing show in the coveted 2-6 pm afternoon drive time slot, overtook The Big Show in the overall ratings over the past year and displayed particularly dominant numbers amongst the younger 20-somethings that are quickly becoming the next wave of sports talk listeners. The show’s declining ratings were something that Ordway acknowledged while announcing his impending departure.
The fact that ratings eventually kicked Ordway to the curb is not what’s troubling about this. We all know that ratings and their coinciding advertising revenue drive the radio and TV business. Likewise, while I’ll miss Ordway’s presence on the radio, it’s hard to shed too many tears for someone who until recently was making seven figures to talk about sports for a living.
No, what’s disheartening about this entire development is what it shows about what kind of product garners good ratings.
For years, I found Ordway’s Big Show to be borderline unlistenable. Ordway was joined by a rotating cast of co-hosts, with Fred Smerlas, Steve DeOssie and Pete Sheppard being the usual suspects. Remotely intelligent sports discourse went completely out the window. The program regularly turned into a contest to see who could yell over the other. It was rare that one of the hosts made it through an entire, coherent point without being interrupted. In this way, it was disturbingly close to the discourse in the Senate (albeit with more fart jokes).
This period coincided with Patriots success, a Red Sox revival and ratings through the roof. Ordway owned the cities airwaves.
However, by 2011 even the producers at WEEI could see that this approach had run its course. With “new kid on the block” the Sports Hub nipping at its heels, WEEI readjusted its programming. Midday host Michael Holley was moved up to co-host afternoons with Ordway. Smerlas and DeOssie and their jock-o-rama program were gone.
As a result, the quality of the program dramatically improved. Juvenile shouting matches had been replaced with intelligent, insightful discussion. Ordway and Holley quickly developed an excellent chemistry. While they did not agree on every issue, they clearly respected each other and allowed both perspectives to be fully articulated and debated. At times, the program even brought forth legitimately poignant discussion, particularly when issues concerning race (Holley is black, Ordway is white) or sexuality (The Big Show had longtime contributor Steve Buckley on the day Buckley came out of the closet in his Boston Herald column) came up. They also managed to pull this off without sacrificing humor; the show had finally achieved a nice balance between being informative and entertaining.
Sadly, the improved product didn’t sell. Felger and Mazz continued to gain ground on The Big Show before finally overtaking it in the ratings this past fall. Part of this can be contributed to more advertising and visibility (Felger and Mazz is also televised on Comcast SportsNet), but a lot of it is simply the fact that Michael Felger has a considerable fan base, something that is even more disheartening.
Felger’s tried and true tactic of spewing constant overbearing negativity and cynical pessimism has proven to be an effective way to get attention. It also makes him an unlikeable douche who looks like he masturbates to his own mental image of how “edgy” and “controversial” his style is. The sheer arrogance in face every time the conversation turns to his favorite subject (taking a battle ax to the reputation, game and character of Rajon Rondo) is second-to-none.
That’s saying nothing of Massarotti, a man whose similarities to George Constanza include fatness, shortness, baldness and excessive emulation and imitation of a more talented and charismatic friend. Maz’s Felger imitations range from adopting his misguided and seemingly personal stance on Rondo to making long, whiny rants with vague political undertones. Even more annoying is the face Maz makes whenever he makes a joke on the air. As his face scrunches up from giggling under his breath at his own joke, he looks first to his right (to Felger) and then to his right (to headlines guy Marc Bertrand) to see if they are as impressed with his humor as he is. He probably does this 20 times a broadcast and I want to punch him in the face through the TV every time.
The fact that this show, full blatantly calculated cynicism, arrogance, whininess and often full-on character assassination (hell, Felger is openly contemptuous of basketball as a sport) has taken down a legitimately good program with open, wide-ranging discussion is troublesome.
Put it this way: Glenn Ordway was the Don Draper of the Boston sports radio world. Years of hard work and natural talent had established him as the best in the business; a force to be reckoned with that dominated the landscape of his field. Ordway certainly wasn’t without his flaws and missteps, but he had earned and was continuing to earn his keep by merit. Finally, like Draper, Ordway was beginning to hear the footsteps of a younger generation behind him, coming closer and closer and leaving him one misstep away from being cast aside in a notoriously cruel business.
In this analogy, Felger is Pete Campbell. Like Campbell, Felger has an immediate youthful (Ok, youthful relative to Ordway) charisma that his mentor doesn’t. Like Campbell, Felger is clearly arrogant, occasionally petty (ask Heidi Watney about Felger’s mudslinging ways) and certainly ambitious. Just as Campbell was brought up in the advertising world by Draper, Felger got his start on talk radio filling in as an occasional co-host on, you guessed it, Ordway’s Big Show. Campbell wears the Blue Suit; Felger wears the Black Sweatervest.
Wednesday, Don Draper was kicked to the curb in favor of Pete Campbell. We all knew it was eventually inevitable, but something about it still doesn’t feel right. Pete Campbell has won.
A sad day for sports talk radio indeed.